May 26, 2014, 06:53AM

Wearing Through

A brief personal history in alt-rock t-shirts.

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In high school, I lusted over a particular Smashing Pumpkins shirt. You know the one: that stylized, effeminate “SP” logo on the front, and the insipid half-ironic screed about “lettuce” and “selling out” and “the big alternative pie” on the back. Then after I finally got it, I was too embarrassed to actually wear the thing anywhere, so it hung in my closet until I threw it away. Ditto my In Utero shirt. I loved the music but had no desire to defend fashion choices with friends or strangers. I’m fairly averse to arguments, which is probably why I never got to be a Big Deal Music Critics; everyone knows that Big Deal Music Critics live for arguments with strangers on the Internet.

At some point there was a Downward Spiral t-shirt that I wore constantly, but I don’t remember much about it now—I can recall, with greater clarity, the “now I’m nothing in 91” hoodie a Teutonic, track-star upperclassman.

On the day I graduated from high school, I donned a cheesy, maroon sci-fi Sonic Youth t-shirt under my gown—the same shirt I would wear to Lollapalooza later that summer. In the fall I befriended an unkempt bohemian who had attended the same festival, wearing the same shirt, who remembered noticing me, though we hadn’t known one another then, of course.

I saw Guided By Voices at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. and bought a GBV t-shirt from the merch table that was too small and that I subsequently gave away. I don’t remember what the shirt looked like, but I do recall that making my way to and from the venue was a nightmare, that I was too young to drink, and I was such a GBV newbie that I couldn’t sing along to most of the tunes.

Then there was another Sonic Youth t-shirt, of the Washing Machine cover art, with the tour dates on the back; I got a lot of mileage out of that one.

There is something slightly improbable about the existence of a Silver Jews t-shirt, in retrospect—not just because almost nobody knew who the Silver Jews were when they were active, but because they never had a hit, almost never toured; Silver Jews fans are a cult, basically. My Silver Jews t-shirt was a very deep, intense blue, with a rendering of fingers playing a guitar commingled with a very simple conception of a bird; the whole thing was reminiscent, in a way, of popular imagery of a dove with a spring of greenery in its beak returning to Noah on the Ark. The most vivid memory I have of the 1998 Vans Warped Tour stop in Washington, D.C. is the reaction of a diminutive non-skate punk, whose face broke into a broad grin when he saw the shirt; it was like he’d discovered the Holy Grail.

I graduated from college wearing an oddly elliptical Pavement t-shirt that I’d worn throughout college; I thought of it as my lucky shirt, since I’d gotten lucky several times while wearing it. It read “PAVEMENT” in block script at the top, and then there was a circular image that was a cross between a face and some sort of modernist space escape craft. If I could stock my closet with 20 shirts like that one, and wear one every day, I would—but if I did, everyone would think me insane.

—Raymond Cummings is the author of several books of poetry, including Crucial SprawlSeven New Poems, and Assembling the Lord. He blogs infrequently at Voguing to Danzig.


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